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Challenges and Rewards of Writing in First Person Present

Last November, I did a project for National Novel Writing Month (“NaNoWriMo”), where writers challenge themselves to write a fifty thousand word story. I chose to write in first-person-present. The choice of person and tense can affect profoundly how a story is perceived by the reader.

You’re probably most familiar with third-person-past, where sentences look like this: “She came to in a darkened room.”

Writers choose that form because it’s the most flexible. Actions in the near-past or the distant-past can be discussed together fairly seamlessly. Too, the action can be described from an omniscient narrator perspective, or from an each-character-in-turn perspective such as in the Game of Thrones books. The disadvantage is that the reader is somewhat removed from the action: “This happened to that person in that time.”

First-person-past, by contrast, is more “intimate,” because it’s the story being told to the reader by the person it happened to. “I came to in a darkened room,” as opposed to “She came to in a darkened room.”

First-person-present has the advantage of “immediacy”: It’s no longer what happened, but rather what’s happening. This story form has special challenges.

The primary challenge is that the writer has to describe things as they are happening. Consider the easy change, “I come to in a darkened room.” This doesn’t work because it’s tantamount to telling. Rather –– what would your first thought be when you regain consciousness in a strange place? Show: “Someone’s moaning; it stops when I realize it’s me. I open my eyes, careful not to move in case someone’s watching, and find that I’m alone. Alone in a darkened room…”

The main challenge in this scene is showing in real time the experience of waking up from unconsciousness while also keeping the reader engaged.

Another challenge is time skips. Stories need to focus on key events and not, for example, on the character’s experience of waiting for/taking the bus. That’s easy with other story forms; for example, in first-person-past, you might write, “After taking the 75 bus downtown, I…” But how do you represent that for first-person-present? You still can do time skips, but you have to be a bit more creative. For example, “The wait for the bus is excruciating, and I’m shaking by the time it comes. I play it over and over in my mind, and by 49th and 5th, I know exactly what to do…”

The key is to give her something to do –– a familiar process that we can all relate to –– which is relevant to whatever is going on in her life at the time.

One final challenge: “I, I, I.” It’s easy to fall into the “list of actions” trap, and is a great reason to join a critique group if you have’t already. For example, “I had breakfast, then I went to the store before I went to work. I noticed the girl looking at me, and I felt I had to say something.”

That would be better written as, “After breakfast, I head down to Starbucks for an iced Cappuccino, but the coffee’s not why I go. I don’t know her name, but she has beautiful, huge blue eyes, which today linger on mine. It’s out before I can stop myself. ‘My name’s Edward, and you have the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen,’ I tell her over the pounding of my heart. The depths of her dimples deepen. ‘Mine’s Beth.’”

The idea is to knit the actions into a narrative that flows, and doesn’t read so much like stage directions. This technique actually works for all story forms.

One final point: Why did I choose to write my story in first-person-present? Well, my first-person character dies at the end! Why that’s relevant: Past tense requires that someone’s alive to tell the story after the fact.

First-person-present carries with it special challenges, but creates an intimacy and immediacy for the reader that may not otherwise be possible. As well, such as in the case where the main character dies in the end, it may be the only way to write the story.

It’s a story form that’s definitely worth experimenting with and seeing how it works for you.

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